CHICAGO — The feminist art space Woman Made Gallery (WMG) opened in 1992 and is still going strong today. A tax-exempt, not-for-profit organization, WMG is in the process of re-developing its approach to gender. Rather than focusing on shows limited to women only with a few exceptions, the gallery is shifting its vision to one that focuses on feminism and feminist art-making as it relates to class, ethnicity, and age. Co-founder and executive director Beate Minkovski will be retiring in 2014, marking the end of a monumental period and the start of a new one. And with 322 exhibitions under their collective belt, including 174 group shows, 109 invitational/solo shows, 11 off-site shows, and 40 Artisan Gallery exhibitions (a curatorial project at WMG that ran from 2005–2009), WMG has brought exposure to a great number of women artists — 7,300 women artists, to be exact.
That seems like a huge number of artists shown over the course of two decades, but in the bigger picture it doesn’t indicate that much visibility. And because statistics on the work of women artists is more than a decade old, Woman Made is working on conducting a survey of galleries and institutions across the country in cities including New York, Chicago, Boston, Miami, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
“We are about two thirds of the way through our research, and the average for female representation is just under 30%,” Ruby Thorkelson, Gallery Coordinator at WMG, told Hyperallergic. “And this inquiry is only taking into account exhibitions, not commercial representation or art sales, or ethnicity.”
Additional 2004 statistics from The Guerrilla Girls’ Art Museum Activity Book augment WMG’s findings, including the fact that during 2000–2004, 8.5 percent of the solo exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art featured the work of women artists, and only 1.5% of those included work by women of color. Similarly, during those same years, 30% of solo exhibitions at the Whitney featured work by white women artists, and 7% included work by women of color. Yet stats about the School of the Visual Arts shows that in 2008, 65% of graduate students were female. According to the College Art Association, 67% of its members in 2009 were female. With the high numbers of women artists, where are the shows?
“While I think that statistics alone make a compelling case for the continued relevancy of Woman Made Gallery and other feminist art spaces, particularly in regards to the gallery’s original mission, I think that there is more to the argument than numbers alone, and that increasing visibility and representation should not be the only goals,” says Thorkelson.
20 Neighborhoods was one such exhibition at Woman Made Gallery that became a 150-person-plus conversation about building community, and the exclusivity of the art world. Begun as a project to expand participation at the gallery around age, ethnicity and class, it grew into exhibition programming focused on Chicago neighborhoods. Women from each community spoke to their personal experience of “place,” with a theme of “self, home, community, and city.” The exhibition included work by women, youth and gender nonconforming people, with explorations of self, family, community, neighborhood, and city based on experiences and aspirations.
Artist and curator Robin Hustle recently mounted her first curatorial foray, Slippery Slope (closed August 22), which explored porn aesthetics, along with her first solo exhibition (ran through August 22) at Woman Made Gallery. In a commercially driven and profit-motivated art world, exhibitions like these come across as almost an anomaly.
“I didn’t go to art school, and other group shows I’ve been a part of have been in feminist or non-hierarchical or non-for-profit spaces,” she says. “By observation, though, the parts of the art world that get taken seriously tend to be profit-driven, authoritative, and steeped in privilege and I’m glad that I’ve been able to avoid that for the most part.”
It is with this in mind that spaces like Woman Made Gallery continue on with their new vision, which includes an all-gender inclusive mission to continue the new feminist art agenda, with a vision to “ensure the equal placement of women’s art in the world,” and “welcomes the involvement of people of all gender expressions and orientations as artists and participants, members and supporters.”
“I had work in a show that Woman Made gallerist Ruby Thorkelson curated a few years ago,” says Hustle. “Between that show and this one, was invited to take part in some conversations with the gallery about how to go beyond tacit/subtle trans-inclusivity into something that more truly reflects the gallery’s mission to work with artists marginalized by gender, in and out of the art world, in a broader sense.”
Woman Made Gallery (685 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago) is open Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 7 pm.